What does a movie about a 1973 tennis exhibition match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs have to say to millennials when everyone knows the war between so-called women’s libbers and male chauvinist pigs ended last century? Ha! Starring a top-form Emma Stone as King and a perceptively flamboyant Steve Carell as Riggs, Battle of the Sexes is not an overtly political movie; it’s a blast about two tennis champions going over the top to make a point. But in speaking to the marginalized, the movie comments bluntly on the here and now. Picture Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump swinging rackets. Plus ça change.
It’s a kick to note that a husband-and-wife team is calling the shots behind the camera. As former music-video directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris proved with Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Ruby Sparks (2012), they can walk the sexual divide with scrappy assurance. Working from a crafty script by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, The Full Monty), the duo energize what could have been (and sometimes is) an obligatory setup that involves constant volleying between two stories.
We meet King at the top of her game, having already become the women’s world tennis champion. She’s pissed that female players aren’t getting the same money and respect that men do. Her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) supports her goals to form an independent Women’s Tennis Association, as does her business partner Gladys Heldman (a tart, terrific Sarah Silverman). But King, 29, is having a personal crisis. She’s barely coming to terms with her own sexuality and her growing attraction to team hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Given the conservatism of the time, King’s coming out could cost her lucrative sponsorships and her career. Stone, fresh from her La La Land Best Actress Oscar win, delivers another funny, touching and vital performance sure to put her back in the awards race. More crucially, she lets us into King’s secret heart, revealing the strain of showing strength while enduring private agony. When Riggs proposes a match, her first instinct is to dismiss it as stunt that would devalue the game. Why she ultimately agrees is the core of the movie.
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As Riggs, Carell turns a clownish fame whore into a complicated character. The athlete was 55 and way past his 1940’s prime as a three-time Wimbledon winner when he goaded King into a challenge match. A gambling addict who hated taking a dull day day job to please his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), Riggs amused himself performing stunt matches, sometimes wearing a bonnet, other times holding a racket with one hand and two leashed dogs with the other. Carell has a comic field day with these scenes, but what takes the performance deeper is the way he shows how Riggs exaggerated his sexism (“A woman’s place is in the kitchen or the bedroom”) to promote himself in a desperate attempt at relevance. Far worse is the behavior of tennis officials, notably USLTA chief Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), who believed this crap for real. It still shocks seeing archival footage of celebs, including a young Chis Evert, predicting a win for Riggs because, hey, men are stronger than women. Even the late sports announcer Howard Cosell is incorporated into the film putting a condescending arm around tennis star Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), echoing Trump’s all-too-current rationale of “When you’re a star they let you do it.”
Of course, this incendiary backstory leads us right to the Houston Astrodome and the big exhibition battle of the sexes, which 90 million watched on TV and whose viewership rivaled the moon landing. Riggs arrived in a chariot wearing a Sugar Daddy Jacket while King – sporting ostrich feathers – made her entrance on a gold divan carried by four semi-naked men. It was a circus, but one that made history. The tennis itself is shot from a high angle, perhaps to disguise the stunt doubles for the stars. Luckily, Stone and Carell – whose rare scenes together take place on court or during combative press conferences – put a human face on a battle that’s still being fought in the trenches of public and private life. Riggs played to stay in the game; King swallowed her pride to crusade for women. Laugh all you want at Battle of the Sexes. It’s a joke you still can’t laugh off.